UN to rescue thousands from siege: Fearing a massacre when Srebrenica falls, officials will send in fleet of lorries despite claim of ethnic cleansing

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The Independent Online
AS HEAVY fighting raged on the outskirts of the besieged Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the United Nations announced that it plans to begin a massive rescue of 10,000 to 15,000 people today. Officially the aim is to ferry the sick and wounded to hospital in Tuzla. Unofficially it is to get as many people out of the town before it falls to advancing Bosnian Serbs.

The plan is to send in 20 lorries a day and bring out 1,500 people to Muslim-held Tuzla, repeating this until, as one UN official in Sarajevo put it, 'we have got the population down to a manageable level'.

Amateur radio operators in Srebrenica said yesterday that the battle, which included artillery fire and hand-to-hand fighting, was raging three to four miles south of the town.

Although the UN is, in effect, assisting the Bosnian Serb objective of 'cleansing' eastern Bosnia of Muslims, top UN refugee officials say they have only two choices, to help them to get out of the town, or abandon 60,000 hungry and terrified people to face a possible massacre at the hands of the Serbs.

Several people, including some chldren, were killed in stampedes or crushed to death on three earlier evacuation convoys to Tuzla staged by the UN. This time the UN hopes a large number of trucks coming in each day will prevent a repeat perfomance.

Jose-Maria Mendiluce, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief for the former Yugoslavia, said Bosnian Serbs were 'trying to use us as an instrument of ethnic cleansing' but added the UN had no choice but to get people out: 'We cannot stop this war, whose aim is creating homogeneous ethnic territories, so the only thing we can do is try to save as many lives as possible.'

A convoy of UN trucks left Srebrenica empty on Sunday after the local authorities forbade civilians to leave the town. But the UN has approval to evacuate from the Muslim President of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, and some UN officials in Sarajevo interpret his agreement as a clear sign that the Bosnians have written off all hope of saving the town - one of the last Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia. Mr Izetbegovic has usually opposed moving out civilians from besieged towns, except when the situation is hopeless.

Mr Mendiluce said if the Serbs overrun Srebrenica, the Security Council must change the nature of the UN operation in Bosnia, which has avoided any confrontation with the Bosnian Serbs' military might.

'We have every indication the Serbs intend to take Srebrenica, as several villages have been falling every day,' he said. A Bosnian Serb commander in nearby Bratunac recently told him the townspeople have two options - to surrender and leave the area, or be crushed within 48 hours.

The sensational visit to the besieged town by General Philippe Morillon, Commander of UN forces in Bosnia, had earlier raised hopes that it would be spared a final Serbian onslaught by a rare show of resolve on the part of the UN. 'Here I am and here I stay,' the general announced, after the UN flag was raised. The pathetically grateful town council renamed the main street General Morillon Street. Yesterday the general was back in Sarajevo and the people of Srebrenica had apparently been left to their own devices. General Morillon is pressing for a UN company of about 150 soldiers to be stationed inside the town, to bolster the tiny group of 14 UN troops now based there.

But there is no indication that the Bosnian Serbs will agree to this request, when it is put to them at today's top-level meeting between UN military commanders and the Muslim, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat military leaders, due to take place at Sarajevo airport.

In Washington yesterday the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said the United States may soon ask its allies to lift an arms embargo on Bosnia, allowing the Muslims to defend themselves, if Bosnian Serbs continue to reject the Vance-Owen peace plan.

'The main thing I would do would be to level the playing field. At the present time, the Bosnian Serbs have all the heavy weapons and Muslims have very few,' Mr Christopher said.

The proposal received a scathing response from Lord Owen, the EC mediator, who said that what it would produce would be a 'level killing field'. Instead he urged the world to apply 'relentless pressure' to bring the fighting to an end through political means. The EC yesterday called for more sanctions against Serbia.

(Photograph omitted)

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